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Planet Earth

ScienceOnline 2011, here I come

Not Exactly Rocket ScienceBy Ed YongJanuary 12, 2011 4:41 AM


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On Thursday, weather permitting, I’ll be flying over to North Carolina for ScienceOnline 2011, undoubtedly my conference highlight of the year. It’s a chance to catch up with some good and far-off friends and to meet some others for the first time. It will also be a busy trip. At last year’s conference, I chaired one session and this year, I appear to be inflicting myself on the other delegates no less than four times. Poor, poor people. First up, Carl Zimmer and I are running Death to Obfuscation, a workshop on science writing for a broad audience, who isn’t obliged to read your stuff. We’ll be looking at some of the basic elements and pitfalls that writers need to consider, from the level of individual words and sentences, to paragraphs and pieces. We’ll discuss the value of compelling language, metaphor and more, and there’ll be a fun exercise for delegates at the end. So far, almost 70 people have signed up, ranging from working scientists to Pulitzer-prize winners. No pressure then! Next up, I’ll be chairing a session on online science journalism, asking whether it’s better or merely different. With me on the panel are arch-writers Virginia Hughes, Deborah Blum, John Rennie and Steve Silberman. I’ll be talking about the opportunities and pitfalls of science journalism on the web, comparing these to print media, and looking at the exciting events of the last year, including something that may possibly rhyme with schmarsenic.

How does the web change our perception of what is “newsworthy”? What attributes are valuable in online science journalism – do we really care about things like scoops, or is context king? How does the web blur the lines between news and opinion? How does it change the practice of reporting, and what features present opportunities that can be tapped (e.g. space, context, links, multimedia)? How much reporting do we bring to blog posts?

Following on from that, I’ll be discussing about blogs, bloggers and boundaries with Marie-Claire Shanahan, Alice Bell, Martin Robbins and Viv Raper. I’ll be talking specifically about how I know about Not Exactly Rocket Science’s audience, some interesting ways in which this blog has affected people, and the capacity of blogs to become more than just an echo-chamber.

Science blogging is often seen as an opportunity for science and science communication to be made more open and in doing so, help connect people. Blogging thus might be seen as a chance to break down cultural boundaries between science, science journalists, and various people formerly known as audiences. But do these traditional roles still affect blogs, bloggers and their readers? Are blogs still producing a rather traditional form of popular science, one that largely disseminates knowledge, maintaining a boundary between those who are knowledgeable and those who are not? Or do they provide new opportunities for these boundaries to be blurred? Similarly, do blogs help foster cross-disciplinary communication or simply allow bloggers to keep talking to ever more niche audiences? They allow science writers to connect with more people, but do they end up as an echo chamber where writers only talk to more of the same people? And how can bloggers tell if their writing is actually making a difference? This discussion will explore the boundaries that are maintained and blurred through science blogging, including the value of some of these boundaries and the importance of being aware of them.

Finally, my fatigued and drooling corpse will be wheeled out to take part in a session on howto explain science in blog posts, featuring an illustrious crew of bloggers led by the mighty Scicurious, and including Joanne Manaster, Maryn McKenna, Vivienne Raper, Eric Michael Johnson, Brian Mossop, Carin Bondar, Melody Dye and Christie Wilcox. Audience participation will be a central part of the session.

Many science bloggers dream about attracting a mass audience, but what's the secret to popular and readable blogposts? Do you have to write about orgasms, duck sex and dinosaurs or are there other ways to draw a crowd? This session will discuss how to make your blog an effective tool for getting the public excited about science... and masturbating squirrels.

I can't wait. And as with last year, thanks muchly to Bora Zivkovic and Anton Zuiker for putting it all together. I'll be even more effusive about their efforts after the event.

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